Resisting Type: the practice of double identity

Kathleen Fraser

This panel was conceived from purely selfish motives.  As a practicing poet for many years, I’ve turned, at different times in my life, to the pursuit of painting, lithography and collage when the language of poetry and its alluring propositions of organization have seemed unavailable or no longer adequate.  This errant shift away from the more familiar terrain of written language forms has afforded me—with each departure—that double-edged event of entering into the sheer physicality of the visual world, as well as coming up against its formally-constructed givens. 

Allowing oneself—in each instance of departure—to take on a less known, unmastered creative activity can be gratifying and frustrating.  But, in my case at least, it has also brought me back to the abandoned materials of a too familiar writing practice, with heightened curiosity and appetite for reconfiguring that earlier language—investing it with structural ideas I’d assigned exclusively to the visual arts.

At last year’s MSA, Susan McCabe spoke of Elizabeth Bishop’s frottage  technique—involving a tracing and overlay of language fragments akin to the frottage  technique used by Max Ernst —basically “rubbing a pencil on paper over objects in order to defamiliarize them from their ordinary denotation.”  McCabe linked Bishop’s method, in her poem “A Weed,” to Max Ernst’s earlier use of the frottage  technique in a small group of prints he entitled Histoire Naturelle.  During this discussion, I remembered how right it had seemed to discover in Helen Vendler’s piece on Bishop—published in The New Yorker, years earlier—Bishop’s hands-on engagement with painting. 

Scanning my peers, a subculture of genre-departure quickly emerged: poet Barbara Guest turning to the novel with Seeking Air  and her abstract collages and word-painting collaborations, achieved together with painter-friend in their lofts;  poet Clark Coolidge’s comments in a letter, about his parallel practice as a jazz drummer, composing poetry with sound-tracks of  be-bop streaming through his headphones; Norma Cole’s original presence as a painter, shifting—in what seemed like a sudden and absolute departure—to poetry and word collage, as well as translation; and poet Kenwood Elmslie’s cautionary comments re. the precise rigors of writing for musical theatre, how even the most contemporary composers of opera were required to adhere to the conventions demanded of opera libretti… and, subsequently, how his playful, texture-rich collages and postcards turned away from that.

In the company of these writers, I’ve become more and more intrigued by the commute between a perhaps more stable or identified writing practice and the departure from that norm.  What happens, I wondered, when the at-first barely acknowledged foreign intrigue becomes a site of equally compelling activity?

Wanting to hear this question discussed by my own contemporaries, I invited three writers to investigate their relationships to related questions of travel among artistic disciplines and to explore here today what impact that detour or expansion has had on each of their working lives as writer-artists.  How does one genre activity feed and question an/other?  What may  be the unsettling effects and reconfigurations of risk, lure and problem-solving for the writer whose genre-identity has been constructed around reliable materials and working procedures, but who later discovers the need to jump—or divide—into new artistic territory/s as a practitioner?

Our panelists are Marjorie Welish—poet, painter and art critic; Carla Harryman—experimental novelist, essayist and playwright/director for Poets Theatre; and Fanny Howe—poet and novelist, who began, after writing at least a dozen novels and poem collections, to make video-films in the Nineties.

resisting type index

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